“We’re in the business of public trust. If segments of our population step up and say, ‘We don’t trust you,’ we need to fix it.”
James Hughes, the new chief of Maricopa Police Department, has been in law enforcement 34 years. He is inheriting a department that, in his own experience, already has great community support.
He spent 25 years policing in New Jersey and can draw many comparisons between Maricopa and Mendham Township, where he first became a police officer at the age of 19. Like Maricopa, he said, the North Jersey community is suburban, upper-middle class and just 25 miles from a major metropolitan area.
In Maricopa, however, Hughes found a refreshing attitude toward law enforcement.
“When people see me out in uniform, I have been thanked more times in this city in a year than I have the previous 25 years,” he said. “The community really supports their police department and volunteer workers. It’s really a treat to go out to lunch in uniform and interact with the public and have them ask questions, talk to them, high-five little kids. It’s really a cool community to work in.”
It’s not all rosy, of course. MPD continues to feel the backlash of the June death of K-9 Ike from heat stroke. As a fix-it kind of guy, he has his eye out for breakdowns in communication and ways to regain trust.
His method of earning trust is succinct.
“One day at a time,” he said. “One person at a time. One call at a time. One contact at a time.” That entails officers holding themselves accountable and teaching younger officers to look in the mirror, reflect and improve. “The secret to success is self-discipline and self-motivation,” Hughes said.
‘I LOVE THIS PROFESSION’
Hughes was born and raised in Bernardsville, New Jersey. His father was a police officer in the horse-country town for 26 years, retiring as a sergeant.
His first job was building bicycles at a bike shop about 100 yards from his home.
“I have a pretty strong mechanical aptitude,” Hughes said. “I enjoy woodworking, cars, hands-on type of stuff.”
After high school, he followed in his father’s footsteps, training to be a police officer and getting hired in a not-too-distant town. In Mendham Township, he worked his way up to lieutenant under the mentorship of Chief Tom Costanza.
Hughes married and started a family. By the time Constanza retired in 2009, Hughes was looking for something different.
That came with a move to Honolulu, Hawaii, in 2010.
He accepted a position as director of the Honolulu Police Commission. He served as executive officer for 18 months but was unsatisfied with what was, in effect, a civilian position in a very large department. It did not provide the challenge he was seeking, he said.
By that time, Steve Stahl had been hired as police chief in Maricopa. He was building a leadership framework and looking for proficient commanding officers.
Hughes saw the posting and threw in his name. After doing well in the initial interviews he did a one-on-one with Stahl.
“He was among some of my first hires when I came here,” Stahl said. “He brings the qualifications that even larger cities require of their chief but, most importantly, he has a thirst for learning.”
Hughes said he felt quickly that he and Stahl share a similar law-enforcement philosophy.
HIs first impression of Stahl: Standup guy. Looks people in the eye. Shakes their hand. Shows respect, but doesn’t beat around the bush. In April 2012, Hughes became a commander over operations and support services. He said he has worked every role in the department, including acting chief when Stahl was out of town. He lived in Maricopa seven years and still owns property in town, though he has moved to Ahwatukee.
He coached city football teams and was involved with several community organizations.
Hughes met his current wife in Maricopa and they have a three-year-old child.More than eight years later, he is stepping up to lead a department with more than 70 officers, 20 civilian employees and nearly 80 volunteers.
‘TREATING PEOPLE WELL IS THE CORNERSTONE’
His advancement is weighed against the respect he has for Stahl and creates mixed feelings.
“It was a little bittersweet, but this is a goal of mine, what I’ve prepared my career for,” Hughes said. “I know it’s time for me to accept this opportunity and lead the great men and women of this department.”
The freshly minted chief does not like to talk about himself but instead promotes the strengths of the department. He calls it a very functional department with amazing people.
A police force with demographics resembling the city’s helps to address the needs of the community. Maricopa officers are doing a tremendous job and behaving compassionately, he said, while going above and beyond their regular duty.
“We’re getting that message out to the public, so that we’re not lumped in with those cities that are not holding their officers accountable,” Hughes said.
He wants his officers to transition smoothly, no matter what call they are answering. That means handling quality-of-life issues and criminal matters while being professional, approachable and compassionate.
“That’s really the sweet spot in this profession,” he said. “Getting the officers to be professional problem-solvers, whether that problem to solve is a dog barking or if it’s the violent felon that needs to be addressed. Both of those are embracing our mission, which is to make every contact excellent. And I think it applies to all facets. We’re the only branch of government that does house calls 24/7.”
“Treating people well is the cornerstone of our profession,” Hughes said.
‘THE BUCK STOPS WITH ME’
He is cognizant of the fact that while serving the residents of the city, the officers are representing the city of Maricopa. Hired as chief by City Manager Rick Horst, he represents the department to the city leadership.
Horst noted the “critical partnership” of the police chief and city manager when the Hughes promotion was announced.
“Not only will he bridge from the old to the new but will take us to the next level of modern-day policing and community service,” Horst said.
What will Hughes’s leadership look like at MPD? He considers himself level-headed and unlikely to “fly off the handle and make rash decisions.” He intends to continue Stahl’s community-outreach programs like “Coffee with the Chief ” and add his own touch to what’s working.
“I share Chief Stahl’s work ethic,” he said. “I believe that the leader should be one of the hardest-working people in the building … The buck stops with me.”
“There’s a lot of demands of busywork that’s placed on a chief,” Hughes added. “I make sure that I dedicate a portion of my day to the things that really, really matter, and that’s the community and our employees here.”
Stahl said MPD is fortunate to have someone with Hughes’s experience to qualify to be the next chief.
“This will be an exciting and challenging adventure, one I am confident he and his chosen command team will meet head-on and work with the community to embrace,” Stahl said.
Hughes, too, used the term “exciting” when talking about the rapid, ongoing growth of the city. He said MPD will play an important part in helping that growth.
“That’s so exciting, the fact that the city is growing compared to back East, where it was sharing the services and merging and [having] the cutbacks and layoffs in some areas,” Hughes said. “It’s a great time to be a Maricopa police officer.”
MPD Chief James Hughes
Hometown: Bernardsville, New Jersey Family: Wife Brandelyn; four children, ages 3 to 22
Education: Master’s degree, public management
Years with MPD: 8
Previous: Mendham Township (NJ) police, 1984-2010; Honolulu Police Commission, 2010-2012
Law-enforcement philosophy: “Like any public service, work hard and care. Solve problems people can’t solve on their own. We can’t arrest our problems, but we also have to arrest the violent people because they put the community at risk. Really just taking a holistic look at our city.”
This story appears in the January issue of InMaricopa magazine.